Matt Godard, CEO and founder of Café Kubal, operates in the Syracuse area’s abundantly rich field of coffee shops and roasters. By Godard’s count, Onondaga County has 115 Dunkin Donuts franchises. Godard has six stores open, and he expects his temporarily closed Creekwalk Commons store to reopen this fall.
Godard started roasting coffee in 2004 in the basement of his parents, Linda and Don.
“It’s a hobby that I started when I was in my 20s,” Godard said. “I was working for John Deere on Collamer Road, which has since closed. It was a logistics desk job, ordinary cubical-type setting. I started with a kitchen countertop, a half-pound roasting machine. I made it for my friends, myself, and family. I got the website live and sold coffee. I decided to make a jump and do it full time. I opened my first store in 2006 at Eastwood Plaza on James Street.”
The Covid-19 pandemic upended Godard’s work and stores, as it has every business. It also showed him how to spot new opportunity. He opened cafes in Manlius and at Sweetheart Corners in North Syracuse.
He said his biggest advice on leadership is to keep an open mind and to create an environment where employees are appreciated for giving discretionary effort. That encourages effort from the heart.
The coffee market seems competitive, and I don’t just mean chains like Starbucks. We have many local roasters or cafes – like Recess or Freedom of Espresso or long-time roasters like Paul deLima. How do you distinguish yourself?
I don’t necessarily look at what other people are doing to dictate what I’m do.
The direction that our company is headed is mostly based on grassroots. We are interested in developing communities. Our six cafes are in six different neighborhoods. Our experience is based on more than just a cup of coffee, but the service and the connection, the connectivity to the community. We’re very much looking forward to public interaction again, as we aspire to be the third place where people can meet when they’re not in their home or at work.
The way I see it is that the more people know about our coffee the more people will drink it. That comes from a confidence that we are striving to give them the best cup of coffee, that the coffee we roast, that we source, and that we brew is the best. Here’s a sample, try the coffee, teach a cupping class.
It isn’t necessarily the most expensive. If you go through the Dunkin Donuts drive through and look at our prices, they’re similar. Rather than trying to compete against, like, a Salt City or a Recess – which are great companies living their dream, just like I am living mine – I think there’s room for everybody.
I would rather get people to try coffee from Salt City than a national chain. More local focused. I think there’s a ton of potential for all of the roasters because once people try a good cup of coffee, they are loyal to that shop. It’s like the blinds have been pulled away and they can see and taste what that is.
There are well over 115 Dunkin Donuts franchises in Onondaga County. In that context, having six cafes is not a big deal. I always think that we’re competing against ourselves. That’s because I don’t use what other people are doing as a gauge to what I should do necessarily.
Our mission statement is: Every day we become innovators striving to delight our customers.
We’re going to look to get them really good coffee, even better than we’ve brewed before, in more locations.
So further expansion?
If you were to ask me that question a mere 18 months ago, I would have had a different answer. Post-Covid, we’re working to expand into the suburban areas of Syracuse. We started that already and opened up in Manlius and in North Syracuse. We’re looking at Liverpool, Cicero, Camillus, Baldwinsville, Skaneateles, DeWitt, Fayetteville.
Before the pandemic, I was fine with sticking in the downtown and university areas and having my business be heavily based on foot traffic and selling coffee in offices and things like that. That was my plan, and it was working pretty well.
When the pandemic started, it sort of opened my eyes to other neighborhoods. So far, our North Syracuse and Manlius cafes are doing great. We’re going to stay in the city, stay in downtown, for sure, but, yes, we’re expanding.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
Not particularly, not anything like I am now.
I went to Faith Heritage (Class of 1995) in the Valley. I majored in English at the University of Michigan. I crammed a four-year degree into seven years. (Laughter) I guess it could have been Class of ‘99, but it ended up being 2002.
I wish I could say that I had a certain experience in leading that prepared me sufficiently for leading a company. I worked through college and had retail management experience, but that’s more manager than leader.
Everything that I have adapted was out of necessity to do my job effectively. Learning, making mistakes, being a bad leader at times and learning the consequences of that.
Once I went from one cafe to two, I realized that I couldn’t manage both. I couldn’t clone myself. I had to have standards and have people respect and follow those standards willingly. I was sort of self-taught in leadership. I did a number of different things – a lot of YouTube videos and virtual mentors. I went to business leadership conferences, like Gary Vaynerchuk. Anybody and everybody that I thought, oh, they’re talk about leading, let’s see what they have to say – Simon Sinek, Jim Rohn, and, if you go way back, Earl Nightingale.
I taught myself how to roast. So I thought, well, I’ll learn how to be a leader.
In my case, it’s very important to be a good leader because of the nature of our business. Everything our baristas do has got to be coming from their heart. If I want somebody to give their discretionary effort, their little extra, their reliability, their passion, then I’ve got to create an environment where that it is appreciated.
So the whole environment incorporates the employees, of course. They participate in it and they see it and they see it happening – getting an honest day’s pay and making people happy with good quality items. That’s it. It’s not magic. There’s no magic bullet, but it’s a hard row to hoe. There’s no big-splash marketing campaign. It’s being consistent over time. That’s what makes us tick.
My model won’t work if employees are disgruntled. You can go anywhere and get rung out at the register by a disgruntled employee. It’s all over the place. We’re not afforded the same luxury, but I don’t want it anyway.
What’s your advice to be an effective leader, especially perhaps someone aspiring to take on leadership responsibilities?
I think the biggest advice is to be open-minded. You have to be open-minded to all kinds of different people and what they believe.
Being a leader is more like a gift that you can give to people, not taking something. If all you’re looking for is prestige and power and money, you’ll never get it. Being a good leader is about more than that. Being a good leader has to be the most important thing.
You have to lead with other people’s wellbeing in mind. Leaders eat last.
What qualities do you see in good leaders?
Good leaders are able to make hard decisions. Good leaders often will come across as realistic, and be seen acknowledging good and bad. How do you react to good or bad circumstances? Bad circumstances are a chance to bring people together as much as good circumstances are a chance to bring people together.
The way that you respond to positive or negative circumstances really defines a leader. For example, with me, I had to unfortunately close our cafe in Marshall Square Mall. That was a definite problem. But I used it as an opportunity to rally my team, to catapult them into uncharted territory and challenge them, but also gave them the structure and direction and tools to move forward.
We basically moved our SU café to Manlius to open up there.
The decision to close the Marshall Square store for me was – I welled up in tears as I was moving out my refrigerators and equipment and everything. It was awful. The only way that I could do it was to look at the big picture, even if it was unpopular. And it wasn’t just about dollars and cents. It was about being able to keep people employed. We had to make a move, and we saved six jobs by doing that. I didn’t want to just sit there and close and wave people off. Probably that would have been easier.
Hard decisions are not only about the bottom line. Sometimes that is what makes them hard. Either way they’re heavy, whether they’re about the bottom line or whether they’re about the people behind it.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders?
Poor leaders put themselves first. Poor leaders leverage their title and authority and put that over being a leader.
If you leverage your title and authority, what you have is a business transaction. In business, you obviously have to have business transactions, and being a good leader doesn’t make it not a business transaction. The transaction is I’m purchasing time with a paycheck. But if you pull rank, then all people do is default to their job description. It takes all the joy out of it for everybody.
I read an interesting quote the other day: Bad leaders will sacrifice their staff for a bonus, and good leaders will go the extra mile for their staff and show them that they care.
How can a leader spark innovation in an organization?
Do not close off to other people’s ideas. I ask employees their feedback. If they’re the ones working on a certain piece of equipment or making a certain item every day and say, you know what, if we had this little thing or we move this over there, it would be twice as efficient. A lot of people will develop really good drinks with the ingredients that we already have on hand put together in different combination. It is wonderful when people are innovating on your behalf. That’s where all the good ideas come from – when people feel free.
Innovation is amazing when we’re faced with problems and you have a team that has bought in.
What’s your advice to lead an organization through change?
Well, it’s hard to make changes if you don’t have a good culture already. I think a good culture is critically important to nurture for all sorts of reasons.
One of our core philosophies is Kaizen, continuous improvement. There’s no we’ve-arrived-type status. We can never be content and rest on our laurels.
We’ve had a culture of change, and that’s built into our mission statement: Every day we become innovators striving to delight our customers.
Change just seems natural at that point. We have to change. Last March, in 2020, we said, well, the shops are all closed, how are we going to sell coffee? We had to launch new programs – in-home deliveries, online ordering with local deliveries.
In general, I think people here realize we’re trying to do something special. If something is remarkable, it’s not easy or else there would be no such thing as unique or remarkable. Excellent would just be average if everybody could do it.
The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at StanLinhorst@gmail.com. Last week featured Calvin Corriders, regional president of Pathfinder Bank’s Syracuse market.
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